Culture

It took a pandemic to be heard

The devastating bushfires in January and the ongoing COVID-19 crises have meant Australians’ have become used to watching regular media conferences on their screens. Have you ever wondered what it would be like trying to watch these presentations in a language that is not your own? And how frustrating this denial of access to critical news would be?

Until this year, 30,000 Australians who identify as Deaf were without access to news services in their first language because television networks failed to provide adequate Australian Sign Language interpreters. Since the introduction of interpreters into daily press briefings, the words of our leaders have been translated into the language of the Australian Deaf community, Auslan, an entirely different language to English.

Interpreters like Luke Eastman help bridge communication divides between Deaf and hearing communities. Photo: Tom Shanahan

Annette Perrin, chief executive of Access Plus, the key service provider for the Deaf community in WA,  says Deaf people have the right to equal access to news to prevent out-of-date, misunderstood or incomplete information. “The direct benefit of having Auslan interpreters on the news is that Deaf individuals are provided with the same access to information at the same time as the rest of the country,” she says. “This is critical for Deaf people to make informed decisions to keep themselves safe during crises.” Access Plus, based in Wembley, plays a key role in pushing for greater accessibility to Auslan services for Deaf people.

WA Deaf Society coordinator Dylan Malder, who is Deaf, lives on a rural property in West Australia. He relies on regular news updates during the bushfire season to understand what the fire risks are for his property.

Dylan Malder uses interpreters to access news in his native language. Video: Tom Shanahan.

Malder says television networks have only recently developed a still growing understanding of Deaf language and culture as they have only started to regularly show interpreters on television. “Previously, the media would commonly hide the Auslan interpreter or not show them clearly, with pride, unfortunately it meant that what was being said wasn’t very clear,” he says.

Dylan Malder is concerned interpreters will be taken away after the pandemic. Photo: Tom Shanahan.

The missing presence of Auslan interpreters on television in the past meant real-time captioning was the only way the Deaf community could access the news. But for some members of the Deaf community, who may not be fluent in written English, understanding the news through English captions alone can be difficult or even impossible. Deaf people like Malder have been forced to watch the news in their second language. “There are many Deaf people who may have broken English as a second language and with captioning, it’s a lot more difficult for someone with a lower level of English competency to understand,” he says.

Access Plus Auslan tutor Linda Cross says real-time captioning is not adequate even for individuals who understand English. “The captions are inaccurate as it is difficult to directly translate Auslan to written English live, it very rarely matches up with what the speaker is actually saying.” she says.

Linda Cross, who is Deaf, teaches Auslan to hearing students. Photo: Tom Shanahan.

Introducing interpreters on television is an important step forward in the recognition of Deaf culture. The notion of the Deaf community being a culture is a relatively new concept to most hearing people. Linda Cross says it is not just about whether Deaf people can receive the news, it is about culturally respecting the fact they should be able to receive the news in their first language. “Having an interpreter there I can relax, I can embrace my identity and understand the content with my first language,” she says.

Though currently there is no legislative requirement for television networks to provide an interpreter, Deaf Australia drives networks and federal bodies to understand how crucial it is to continue providing this service. “When an Auslan interpreter is not provided, the Government is perceived as being discriminatory to Deaf citizens” Deaf Australia says in an open letter.

The positive change in the provision of interpreters was partly fuelled by networks failing to provide adequate services during coverage of the Same Sex Marriage Postal Survey in 2017. Deaf Australia accused Channels Seven, Nine and Ten of “failing to include the ABC Auslan interpreter in the screenshot continuously” in what they described as a “deliberate and disrespectful act excluding specific members of the Australian Community.”

Deaf Australia continues to work closely with the ACCAC to ensure complacency does not set in and services continue throughout the pandemic and into the future.

“After coronavirus settles down, are we still going to have interpreters on the news? Or is that service going to be taken away?”

– Dylan Malder

Deaf Australia says television networks should not stop providing the same level of coverage as they are right now, even after the pandemic. “It is not the time to become complacent regarding the provision of Auslan interpreters during important briefings to Australian citizens.”

Dylan Malder says the television exposure Auslan is currently receiving is great as it not only gives access for the Deaf community, but also is increasing the exposure of Auslan to the rest of society. “It is really a focal point of attention and it is really important to have that,” he says.

Linda Cross says the greater exposure of interpreters on television has triggered an increased interest in hearing people learning Auslan and attending her Auslan classes. ”Many more hearing people are now aware of Auslan and the Deaf community because of the exposure of our language on television,” she says. “A lot of my students have become involved due to seeing Fiona Perry on TV interpreting Mark McGowan’s words at pandemic press conferences”

Access Plus Auslan classes are helping bridge communication divides between Deaf and hearing communities. Video: Tom Shanahan.

This increase in media coverage of Auslan interpreters on television coincides with more people learning Auslan than ever before. This year, Access Plus has experienced a 32 per cent increase in students taking Auslan classes.

Access Plus provides Auslan services for both the Deaf and hearing – Infographic: Tom Shanahan

This is a significant leap forward for increasing access and bridging communication divides for the Deaf community, as historically Deaf students have typically struggled to access qualified interpreters in schools. Cross says in the 1980s she experienced significant difficulty being accepted for her culture when growing up. “My barriers at school, they were very English heavy” she says. “There was no teacher of the Deaf when I was growing up, the teachers only taught my second language, English, so I was forced to learn English.” “When I finished school I had to start again to learn my own language, which is AUSLAN language.”

Linda Cross, like many Deaf people, faced barriers to accessing education in her native language. Video: Tom Shanahan.

Access Plus employee Hamish Wilkinson, is only 21 and Deaf, but says access to interpreters has changed significantly since he started going to school in 2004. “I had a lot of barriers through primary school as I didn’t have an interpreter because I lived in Broome,” he says. “I always had a note taker, but English isn’t my first language so it was hard to read the notes.”

He says there has been a significant change to access since then. “When I moved to Perth and went to Shenton College, all the interpreters there were qualified so it was amazing that I could access my education there,” he says.

Hamish Wilkinson, who is Deaf, and Jake Pearson, who is hearing, have become friends through the language of Auslan. Video: Tom Shanahan.

The provision of Deaf role models, sign language interpreters and qualified hearing teachers of the Deaf  is showcased not only on television through interpreters, but in education. Wilkinson’s school, Shenton College, is inspiring a new generation of young Deaf and hearing people.

Shenton College is helping educate more students about Deaf language and culture. Infographic: Tom Shanahan.

Shenton College is the only school in Western Australia to offer Auslan as an ATAR subject. The school’s curriculum leader Karan Bontempo says teaching and exposing young hearing students to Auslan is inspiring a generational change in acceptance and inclusivity of Deaf Culture. “These students graduating may not necessarily become interpreters or teachers of the Deaf, that’s not our intention,” she says. “We want our students to graduate fluent in Auslan so when a Deaf person goes to their GP or vet in the future and happened to go to Shenton, they will be able to communicate with them.”

Two men signing in park
Hamish Wilkinson (left) and Jake Pearson (right) met at Shenton College. Photo: Tom Shanahan.

Dr Bontempo, who is also the Australian Sign Language Interpreters’ Association Interpreter trainers’ network national chairperson, says Deaf students are embedded in the fabric of the school. “In every year level, in every assembly, in every school council and in every element of the school there are Deaf kids involved and included,” she says.

“I think it is incredibly powerful for all students to know Auslan because it broadens awareness in wider society and it provides opportunities for access.”

– Dr Karen Bontempo

Shenton College Deaf education principal Leanne Potter says teaching children Auslan helps inclusivity and recognition of the Deaf community as a unique and identifiable sub-culture. “Deaf people are a part of a linguistic and cultural minority group and not a disability group due to the fact that their language drives it,” she says.

Dr Bontempo says all Auslan classes at Shenton College are taught with a native speaker of the language to provide the most efficient and culturally appropriate learning environment. “When we teach Auslan we have a Deaf teacher alongside the hearing Auslan teacher in every single class to provide that linguistic and cultural element with the nuance that a hearing teacher wouldn’t get” she says. “They (the Deaf teachers) are the native speakers, they are the most proficient, it’s their language.”

“It’s the same as if a non-Indigenous person tried to teach an Aboriginal language, it’s not ok.

– Leanne Potter
The original WA Foundation for Deaf Children school has been closed since 2001 – photo: Tom Shanahan.

Leanne Potter previously held the position as president of the Australian Association of Teachers of the Deaf. During her time in this role, she pushed for greater cultural recognition for Deaf people, as she lobbied then Premier Colin Barnett to block the sale of the 100-year old home of WA Deaf education, the WA Foundation for Deaf Children in Cottesloe.

Built in 1897, the old Deaf school has been the home for generations of Deaf children and Potter says this is one of the few culturally significant places remaining in WA for the Deaf community. “If the Deaf community lose this building, it would be a tragedy,” she says. “It has been their place since 1897 and it would be very sad if it was sold and that sense of place was lost.”

“This building belongs in the hands of the Deaf.”

– Leanne Potter

Connection to community, language and culture are intrinsically linked. Deaf people are members of not only their own community, but the wider society of Australia and they require the same respect and access to this wider community as hearing people. With more people learning Auslan and accessibility to communication services improving, Deaf and hearing communities can fully engage in a more inclusive and culturally respectful society. For that reason, organisations such as Access Plus, Deaf Australia, ASLIA and Shenton College continue their quest to bridge communication and cultural divides between Deaf and hearing cultures.

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